Five Great Books About Punk Rock

My older daughter Wenona turned me on to Green Day, who became my gateway to punk rock. This passion led to being schooled mercilessly by serious fans of the Clash and the Sex Pistols to whom Green Day were mere poseurs.

But my fascination with Fugazi, one of D.C.'s most beloved punk rock legends, began with my younger daughter Linda's tween obsession with playing guitar and songwriting. I asked a former co-worker, Kathi Wilcox, who I heard had played bass guitar in a band, if she would mind talking to my daughter about starting a band. Kathi invited Linda to her home for a chat and encouraged her that she could make it happen if she wanted to. Kathi, it turned out, was one of the original Riot Grrrls of the iconic all-girl punk band, Bikini Kill. Her boyfriend, Guy Picciotto, guitarist and vocalist for a band called Fugazi, overhearing the conversation, chimed in with more encouraging words. They were so nice!

In later conversations with various D.C. musicians, over and over I heard how polite and nice Fugazi were. How Fugazi bewildered the music industry by never charging more than $5 a ticket, by creating an independent label which sold its music cheap, by talking to amateur fanzines instead of big rock magazines. They played benefits to raise money for homeless shelters and free clinics. What a great model for the spirit of public service that President Barack Obama called for on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

Punk rock culture is fertile ground for books from the frivolous, like Punk Shui: Home Design for Anarchists by Josh Amatore Hughes, and Punk Rock Etiquette: The Ultimate How-to-Guide for DIY, Punk, Indie and Underground Bands by Travis Nichols, to serious biographies like Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz and autobiographies like Rotten by John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten.

I'd hoped that Ian Mackaye, also guitarist and vocalist for Fugazi, and founder of renowned independent label Dischord Records might select five favorite books about punk rock culture, but he replied, very nicely, "I have avoided reading any of the books that speak directly to my history or era. It feels too akin to reading my epitaph!"

So here are five of mine. Please feel free to add your own.

1. Made in the UK: The Music of Attitude 1977-1983, by Janette Beckman.
Working for music paper Melody Maker in London, Beckman was on the frontlines at the dawn of punk rock. Besides her striking black and white images of icons such as the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Jam, the Police, the Ramones, Boy George, Billy Idol, Annie Lennox and Elvis Costello, are many engaging portraits of fans dressed with just as much attention to looking fantastic as their idols. The youthful exuberance on these pages is touching.

2. Legends of Punk: Photos from the Vault, by Rikki Ercoli.
"Anarchy and Freedom was the motto. Boredom and Nowhere was the image," says photographer Ercoli of the U.S. punk scene of the late '70s and early '80s. "Lots of creativity and energy in abundance is what it was all about." Sid Vicious sneers, Siouxsie and the Banshees flail, the Ramones grimace, Patti Smith moans, the Clash regulate, Deborah Harry mesmerizes, and more. A time of fierce style, individualism and fun.

3. Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital, by Mark Andersen & Mark Jenkins.
This collaboration combining the labor of love of social activist Andersen and the storytelling craftsmanship of arts journalist Jenkins yields a treasure trove of punk underground human drama embedded in D.C.'s turbulent political and social history in the '80s and '90s. Includes the evolutions of Bad Brains, Henry Rollins, Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Fugazi, and Bikini Kill. If it's not, this should be required reading in college courses on revolutionary contemporary music.

4. Keep Your Eyes Open: The Fugazi Photographs of Glen E. Friedman.
Published 20 years after Fugazi's first concert in 1987, Friedman's almost 200 photos were taken between 1986 and the band's last U.S. concert in 2002. In the caption for a quartet of explosive photos taken in 1993 at Roseland, New York City, Friedman recalls legendary music mogul Ahmet Ertegun coming backstage to try to sign the enormously popular and famously unsignable band. "Last time I did this was when I offered the Rolling Stones their own record label and $10 million," Ertegun told them. Politely, Fugazi declined and changed the subject to their shared love for Washington, D.C.

5. Silent Pictures, by Pat Graham.
This book, like the others, proves why you young chroniclers of your own music cultures should keep taking your pictures and blogging about what you love. Capture that energy! Make it live forever! The aforementioned Kathi Wilcox and her Bikini Kill bandmates are immortalized in this book, along with Fugazi, Bratmobile, Modest Mouse, the Shins, Thievery Corporation, Ted Leo, and others. As Ian Mackaye says in his foreword, "These are the pictures that draw people in and inspire them to engage and create."

-- Mary Ishimoto Morris

By Mary Ishimoto Morris |  February 19, 2009; 1:10 PM ET Mary Morris , Nonfiction
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You should add the excellent "Our Band Could Be Your Life" by Michael Azerrad to your read9ing list. While not specifically about punk, it includes excellent discussion of Mackaye, the DC punk scene, and several other punk and post-punk DIY-ers.

Posted by: timfrederick | February 19, 2009 2:22 PM

Not from DC, so I missed the punk days here. But I have many friends who were here and so I love these books. I'd also recommend Punk Diary: 1970 - 79, by George Gimar. An almost day by day recap of shows and record releases during the early years of punk

Posted by: shadow27 | February 19, 2009 4:15 PM

I agree with timfrederick regarding Azerrad's superb "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991" an intelligent, juicy and extremely educational tour through the punk wasteland of the 1980s. I read it a year ago and I'm still referring to it, as well as using it as a record guide. It turned me into the obsessive Sonic Youth fan I am today. Fugazi merits a chapter, too.

The best single book about the intellectual underpinnings of punk -- and yes, it does have them -- is Greil Marcus' legendary tome "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century," which traces the punk ethos from centuries back, from John of Lydon to Johnny Lydon, stopping off at such vital 20th Century signposts as Dada, Surrealism, the Lettrists, the Situationists, etc. A mind-blowing history that reminds you once again that there is nothing new under the sun.

Posted by: rodneypwelch | February 19, 2009 7:16 PM

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